The Swapper

words manifested by: AJ Johnson

A game by Facepalm Games for PC, Mac, Linux, PS3, PS4, Vita, and Wii U, originally released in 2013.
The Swapper begins with an escape pod being launched from a research facility on a space station, landing the player on the desolate planet below. The player character emerges from the capsule clad in a space suit, and makes her way to a doorway embedded in the rock. Passing through the door reveals an expansive subterranean excavation site. You enter the site, looking for a teleporter that will allow you to return to the space station for reasons that are not yet clear. Along the way, you activate computer terminals and listen to radio broadcasts that provide a bit of context for your adventure, which unfolds – or perhaps, unravels – as you make your way through the moody and mysterious world.

The Swapper is a puzzle-based action adventure with a focus on a single core mechanic. A device known as the Swapper allows its user to generate clones of herself – up to four at a time – and then swap her consciousness with any of the newly-created bodies, thus taking over the new vessel and making it her own. In addition to the complex puzzles that this sort of mechanic allows for, it also presents a number of philosophical questions, mixed with the core science behind the device. What is it that is being transferred? Is it a soul? What happens to the bodies that you leave behind? What is it that makes you you?

The game’s presentation helps to sell this as a serious subject by representing the world as a realistic environment, rather than some game construct that is meant to be exploited without meaning. The world and its characters were actually created using clay models and other materials which were rendered into normal maps, allowing for dynamic lighting and shadows, complex textures, and dark environments that are impacted by ambient lighting. The cold and isolated environment is further emphasized with a subtle musical score, and sound effects such as dripping water and echoing footfalls.

Further adding to the realism is the fact that the main character does not have any sort of superhuman abilities. She cannot run at amazing speeds, she has a low 0.5x jump, and she lumbers about a bit as a result engaging the environment within the confines of a space suit, further emphasizing the character’s separation and isolation.

Early on, you encounter the Swapper and make a clone of yourself, which is done by aiming a beam and pointing an outline of a body at any point in the environment where you have a direct line of sight. Once created, a single set of controls operates the player character and her clones. If the clones touch you, they cease to be. More than that, they seem to shrink out of existence, with their space suits shriveling and disappearing and their own Swapper devices falling to the floor. If a clone falls from a great height, it hits the ground and crumples, and air begins leaking out of its tank. Once again, this effect is designed around a sense of realism and calls the player’s actions into question… Have you just killed another living being? And if so, does that have any meaning?

Clones are most often used to activate switches, but strangely only the “original” can open doors and activate elevators and teleporters. Early on, additional restrictions are placed on the use of the Swapper, with blue lights preventing you from placing a clone in that location, and red lights preventing you from swapping through them. Purple lights, as expected, combine both effects. For the most part, these are the only true game conceits, and are in place simply to allow for more complex and varied puzzle solutions. There is no clear explanation in the game’s universe as to why the Swapper would be impacted by the color of lights or why a player-controlled clone is able to operate a switch or pull a block but is somehow be unable to call an elevator or open a door.

Puzzles are entirely self-contained, so each puzzle room can be solved on its own with the tools at your disposal. Creating a clone or swapping with it requires a direct line of sight (and the absence of restrictive lighting), so most of the puzzle solutions revolve around positioning yourself properly to aim your beam. Since other clones move along with you, you also need to be careful to ensure that they can’t walk away from switches while you are moving around the room. Time slows when you hold the button to create a clone, giving you the time to line them up properly, even while falling. Often, switches are used to deactivate or move lights around to allow you to use your Swapper. Ultimately, you need to get your “original” self to the orbs which act as the goal in each room.

Orbs are required in order to access computer terminals and open up new areas of the space station. In this way, they operate not unlike keys, except that new areas become accessible based on the total number of orbs in your possession. As such, the orbs are interchangeable, allowing players to explore sections of the environment freely, with no linear solution for progress. However, if you hope to complete the game, you will eventually need to solve all of the puzzles, so it’s best to tackle them as you find them.

The space station is made up of a series of interconnected chambers with a Metroidvania-style map showing which areas you have visited, as well as any doors or computer terminals that you have not yet accessed. For the most part, you are able to travel around the station freely, and backtracking is rarely required so long as you thoroughly explore each area before you move forward. In the cases where you do need to return to a previous area, floating material conveyors and site-to-site transporters are generally close by, allowing you to move quickly around the station.

Early in the going, purposely killing a clone is infrequent. Often, you simply pass through a white light (usually near the door) that causes all of the clones to disappear. When you do need to destroy a clone, it is often to save your own life. For instance, when falling down a long shaft, you can create a clone on solid ground and swap places with it before your body is smashed on the metal floor below. As you progress, however, you encounter more and more situations where you need to sacrifice multiple clones just to get from place to place…

A high point can be reached by creating a clone above you in midair, swapping with it, and then creating another clone and swapping again, leaving the first to fall to its death. You may sacrifice multiple clones just to move around a single room, but the layout of the levels offers no other way to progress. If you believe that there is any value to these bodies you are creating, then the only truly “moral” choice would be to simply do nothing. Sacrifice is the only way for you to move forward and survive, and ultimately, the only way to survive is by sacrificing dozens – perhaps hundreds – of copies of yourself.

With the frequency that you must create clones, and the fact that they all mimic your movement, you may occasionally lose track of which body is actually yours. It may be jarring to run through a white light, thinking that the clones behind you will disappear when you do so, only to find your apparent self shriveling and disappearing, while the “real” you runs up from behind.

In the back half of the game, several gravity-based challenges appear. First off, there are a few zero gravity areas where you must leave the station through an airlock and float freely from one area to another, using your Swapper as a means of propulsion. As you move, the world constantly spins around you, further adding to the confusion as you try to keep yourself on course. Eventually, you encounter glowing lights within the station that act as gravity reversing points… but only for you.

Clones and other objects in the environment retain their gravitational orientation unless they pass through the gravity lights themselves. New gravity-based puzzles are introduced here, with clones mimicking your orientation when they are placed, allowing you to drop them onto the floor or ceiling. These solutions are not considerably more difficult than the light-based puzzles, but things get quite complex when light and gravity are combined, requiring players to stretch their knowledge of the game’s rules to the absolute limit.

As you explore, you encounter another individual moving about the station in areas that you cannot reach. She communicates by radio, but her words make it unclear as to whether she is addressing you directly or speaking with someone else on the station. Ultimately, the player is left to piece things together on his own (although most of the story elements are entirely optional) and consider the ethics and philosophical implications of his actions, and those of the station's former operators.

The Swapper was developed by Facepalm Games, based in Helsinki, Finland. This was the studio’s first commercial release and was the recipient of numerous indie game development awards and accolades. The studio is comprised of two University of Helsinki students, Olli Harjola and Otto Hantula, who created the game in their spare time. Olli is credited as the designer, programmer and artist, while Otto is credited with level design. The pair contracted Carlo Castellano for music and sound design, and Tom Jubert for writing and narrative design. Tom’s previous credits include Penumbra, FTL, and the oddly metaphysical Driver: San Francisco. Development was funded by the Indie Fund.

London-based Curve Studios developed the port for Sony platforms. Curve Studios was founded in 2005, and has worked on such titles as the Buzz! series, the Fluidity games, Explodemon, and the Stealth Bastard games. The studio also focuses on working with other independent developers to port and publish their games on Sony’s platforms, including Velocity Ultra from FurturLab, Thomas Was Alone by Mike Bithell, Lone Survivor from Superflat Games, and Proteus by Ed Key and David Kanaga.